INDIANAPOLIS – Mental health issues among Americans have continued to soar throughout the pandemic, and youths are no exception. In fact, the U.S. surgeon general recently issued an advisory highlighting the urgent need to address the nation’s youth mental health crisis.
Thanks to $2.7 million in recent grants, the Indiana University School of Medicine’s Indiana Behavioral Health Access Program for Youth will be able to help more children and families facing mental health challenges.
Known as Be Happy, the child psychiatry access program for pediatric primary-care providers will have five years of operational support. This program is supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as part of an award totaling $2.6 million awarded to the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration’s Division of Mental Health and Addiction, in partnership with the IU School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry. The grant is part of the American Rescue Plan Act’s Pediatric Mental Health Care Access New Area Expansion. Be Happy also received a one-year, $100,000 grant from the Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has been a huge stressor for all our lives, and in particular the lives of children and adolescents, leading to new and worsening mental health concerns,” said Dr. Rachel Yoder, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at the IU School of Medicine and co-director of Indiana Be Happy. “Many families have difficulty accessing mental health care and generally first seek help from their pediatricians. By providing immediate consultation, child mental health providers within our program can help pediatricians catch and address mental health concerns early and improve access to evidence-based treatment.”
Before COVID-19, mental health challenges were the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people, with up to 1 in 5 children ages 3 to 17 in the U.S. having a mental, emotional, developmental or behavioral disorder, according to the U.S. surgeon general. From 2009 to 2019, the share of high school students who reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40%, to more than 1 in 3 students.
Suicidal behaviors among high school students also increased during the decade preceding COVID-19, with 19% seriously considering attempting suicide, a 36% increase from 2009 to 2019, and about 16% having made a suicide plan in the prior year, a 44% increase from 2009 to 2019.
The new grants will allow the Be Happy program to increase availability and accessibility of statewide pediatric mental health care teams through telehealth consultation and referral services for primary-care providers and other youth-serving professionals. The grants will also allow program leaders to conduct web-based continuing education sessions through the Child and Adolescent Mental Health ECHO program. They also will provide technical assistance and information to primary-care providers on timely detection, assessment, treatment and referral of children and adolescents with mental health disorders.
The Be Happy program will focus on rural and other underserved areas to better address health inequity related to racial, ethnic and geographic disparities in access to care. It will also increase provider access to resources and increase the ability of children, youth and families to use those resources.
Primary-care providers are typically more accessible to families than behavioral health specialists, but they tend to lack the training or support to assess or treat youth mental health disorders independently, according to Be Happy co-director Zachary Adams, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the IU School of Medicine. This can lead to both under- and over-prescription of medications, delays in care leading to worsening symptoms, and other potentially harmful and costly outcomes.
Be Happy is open to all health care professionals in the state who work with youth and family. It offers provider-to-provider consultations, referrals and education at no cost to providers.
As of today, 570 providers in 62 Indiana counties have registered for services through Be Happy, and the program has completed 1,079 consultation calls. The most common reasons for contacting the program are for medication questions, therapy/behavioral intervention questions and diagnostic questions/evaluations. The most common patient diagnoses through the program are anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and depression.
“We are honored to be able to continue and expand Be Happy services,” Adams said. “We are particularly excited about opportunities to reduce inequities in access to behavioral health care services, and we will continue to identify opportunities to sustain these services long term to meet the mental health needs of Indiana youth and families and the health care professionals who serve them.”